Building Community to Defeat Extremism

Remember that phrase in the film Miss Congeniality when all the beauty contestants are asked what is the one most important thing our society needs? They all reply “world peace” and the crowd cheers ecstatically. What is your wish for Virginia Water in 2009? Sounds a little more specific than your hopes for the entire world doesn’t it?

Focussing on Virginia Water moves us from generalities to responsibilities, from what we hope others will do to what we can do. And sometimes it only takes one person’s initiative. I hope you too were inspired by PC Elaine Bryant’s initiative to get the first ever Virginia Water community Christmas trees up. I kept thinking two things – first, why hadn’t we done it before and second, see what a person with vision and determination can achieve in a few weeks to bring us together.

OK, we are only talking about two Christmas trees with lights for heaven’s sake but that is not the point. Judging by the hundreds of people who turned out on a cold wet evening, including families with small children and senior citizens, to sing carols, drink mulled wine and eat mince pies and ginger bread men, perhaps PC Bryant’s initiative struck a chord in a lot of us. We certainly had more police officers in Virginia Water than I have ever seen before.

So what is my hope for Virginia Water in 2009? To see you and everyone else in the community come to know Jesus as your friend and leader. That is my first hope and prayer. If you want to know more, come along any Sunday at 9:30, 11:00 or 6:30.

My second hope is to see us as a community grow closer together in the year ahead. With the recession beginning to bite harder and forecast to last at least a year, with the steady rise in radical political and religious extremism, anti-social behaviour and the threat of terrorism ever before us, the temptation in 2009 will be to retreat into our shells or begin to blame others for our woes.

Remember Oswald Mosley and his Black Shirts that fed off the back of the Great Depression? How do we avoid it ever happening again? If we are tempted to think it could never happen here, we need to think again. I was pleased to see that the Holocaust Research Centre of Royal Holloway University are collaborating with German educational institutions in a conference this month in Berlin on holocaust perpetrators. The conference will address how and why ‘normal’ people become genocide perpetrators.

With the leaking in November of the names, addresses and occupations of the 12,000 members of the British National Party (BNP), media attention, has focussed on the handful of police officers, teachers and soldiers so identified. While membership of the political party is entirely legal, certain occupations are banned from being members of the BNP.

I was encouraged by two aspects of the incident. First, membership of such parties is still perceived to be an embarrassment to the majority of people in Britain. Second, given legitimate concerns over evidence of institutional racism and anti-semitism I was relieved that so few Christian leaders were listed.

Ben Wilson, a spokesman for the Church of England, said in November. “The church’s General Synod passed a motion in 2004 stating that any political movement that seeks to divide our communities on the basis of ethnicity is an affront to the nature of God revealed in creation and scripture and is a grave danger to harmonious community relationships; consequently voting for and/or supporting a political party that offers racist policies is incompatible with Christian discipleship.”

So how do we combat religious and political extremism and build community here in Virginia Water? Here are three ideas:

1. Support the Virginia Water Community Association; the Royal British Legion; our three local schools PTA’s and governing bodies at Trumps Green, Christ Church and St Ann’s Heath; the Scouts, Cubs, Guides and Brownies; the Library; the Help the Aged charity shop; and further afield, White Lodge and St Peters Hospital. There’s also the lobby against the incinerator at Trumps Farm. I am sure you can think of others.

2. Volunteer to serve in the community. At Christ Church, we encourage every member to volunteer at least an hour a week in the church and community – with things like a monthly senior citizen’s lunch club and Scallywags and Cherubs toddler groups. If everyone in Virginia Water volunteered an hour a week to the community, it would be the equivalent of employing 18 people. Two hours each and it would be the equivalent of employing 36 people. A sign of a healthy community is how well it cares for the most vulnerable – whether in terms of gender, health, age or race. How do you think we are doing?

3. Support community based events in 2009. There will hopefully be the VWCA Carnival Capers, the open air Summer art exhibition, the school productions and Fayres, the Polo Championship, the Wentworth bonfire, the Remembrance Sunday wreath laying, and now the Christmas tree lighting. At Christ Church we have added annual events like Mothering Sunday, the Bank Holiday Rogation Walk around Virginia Water, a Summer Picnic in the Park and of course the Church festivals of Easter, Harvest and Christmas to help build community.

So, how about it? What is your hope for Virginia Water in 2009? What are you prepared to do to turn it into a reality? If you have other ideas on how to strengthen our community write a letter to the editor. May the Lord bless you and those you love throughout the year ahead.

Article published in the January edition of Connection, the community magazine of Virginia Water, and delivered at the 2008 Wentworth Christmas Carol Concert